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Little Teachers

Reprinted with permission of PhilosophyCenter

Little Teachers

In Taoist philosophy, the essence of practice is wu wei, usually translated as “effortless effort” and represented by the movement of natural phenomena: the tumbling water of a river, clouds scudding through the sky, falling rain, the turning of the planets and the seasons. In human nature, this has to do with the art of allowing things to happen rather than trying to force, manage, or control them through the imposition of our will.

We adults seem to have a hard time with the “effortless” part of effort. We try our best, try harder, try and try again—but in none of this do we see the ease and efficiency of an allowing that moves things, not by some exerting, but by its very nature. The difference can be grasped readily in the image of a leaf floating on a river. The leaf can rest in the natural motion of the water, or it can try to propel itself. From a bird’s-eye view, these two scenarios might look much the same, but we can see that the leaf’s effort to propel itself would be redundant, wasteful, pointless, since it’s flowing along anyway. By simply resting in the natural movement of the river, its effort becomes effortless.

We may be concerned that if we abandon effort, nothing will happen in our lives. We’ll end up sitting on our hands, waiting. This, perhaps more than any other belief, reveals the hubris of Particle willfulness. Look around! Does the hand of Nature seem idle? Everywhere we turn, we see a brilliantly creative, organizing intelligence that must humble us again and again. Each electron, each galaxy, is spinning with clockwork precision and with no exerting anywhere! And are we not part of Nature? Do we not belong to this prolific creativity as much as the trees and stars? Asleep in willfulness, we have fallen to believing that if we don’t make something happen, nothing will happen, but this is belied by all Creation.

I recall watching my grandson when he was a few months old. One of the most striking things about infants is their natural receptivity to effortlessness, their ease in belonging to the Mystery that moves them as it does all of us and all things. The little hand “knows” to go to the mouth, as though Nature Herself had taught the infant the essential gestures long before he could understand what makes them essential. My grandson was born “knowing” how to hold his head up, how to nurse, how to cry when he needed something. At three months, this knowing expanded to include smiling at familiar faces, and soon after, he began laughing out loud. Imagine—laughing! Astounding. He always responded with delight when I held a picture book in front of him and read to him; something in him recognized and, in this sense, already “knew” language. This something later turned him over, got his arms to start pushing the ground away, and lifted his bottom while bringing his knees up under. Before we knew it, the whole house had to be baby-proofed to make way for this unstoppable effortlessness!

In all of this, we see that easy state of allowing native to every infant—a state of grace and gracefulness—a natural cooperation with deep life, which conceives, delivers, nurtures, and brings up all babies by becoming them. For all their natural knowing, they are ignorant, in the original meaning of the word, “not knowing,” and in this knowing-through-not-knowing, they embody a profound and easy trust in the living moment at hand. Their efforts to gain control of their body and their world are effortless, like the leaf moving with the river; at this point, they have no choice but to grant their instinctive impulses right of way as they move along the arc of becoming more and more fully who they are. Later, of course, they will have a choice. We have this choice now. Babies have a great deal to teach us, simply because they have not learned to interfere, to judge, to resist, to try to manage what must be allowed. They have no agenda; their agenda is life-becoming-greater-life before our eyes. And arguably, there is no other time of life that rivals these first months and years in sheer development, creativity, and accomplishment—all through the great efficacy of allowing.

Babies teach us to not so much lead our lives as follow them. There is something of the Taoist master in each of them, fulfilling the precept set forth by Lao Tze in the Tao Teh Ching, and echoed by many great spiritual teachers, “Do nothing, and everything will be done.”

15 December, 2014

Willing to Be Charmed

The Willingness to Be Charmed

One of the important bits of instruction in The Conscious Parent, the Child Project’s eight-week, self-study curriculum, is presented in the first week, “The Magic of Things,” in a discussion about how differently young children see the world than do the adults in whose care life has placed them. As they move through the developmental years, they are, of course, shedding the spontaneous, magical ways of childhood and learning the language, figuratively and literally, of adulthood. Conscious parents, understanding this, meet them halfway by learning something of their “language”—the language of childhood that arises out of a spontaneous awareness of the natural magic of wonder of things, an awareness that perhaps most of us barely remember, if at all.

I was reminded of this the other day as I was sitting in a small bakery and breakfast place. A woman came in with a child who looked to be about four. The two of them walked up to the counter and bought some things. On the way out, the mother’s arms were full of her purchases, so she asked the little girl to open the door, which she did eagerly. Pushing with all her might, the girl got the door open and held it for her mom, who said to her with appreciation, “You have strong muscles to open the door like that.” To this, the girl replied, “My body helped me.”

There is hardly a way to identify what it is about this response that makes it so utterly charming. It is a tour de force of the kind of freely creative thinking that children probably take for granted as much as we take for granted our rational, rule-governed, socialized way of thinking. We cannot, of course, go backward. “Childhood ends,” the writer, poet, and philosopher G.K. Chesterton tells us, “the moment things are no longer astonishing.” In this sense, we do our children a great service by cultivating in ourselves the willingness to be astonished, and to be astonished, as they are, by everyday things.

This takes time, and taking time depends on the willingness to take time. If we allow the demands of the day to accelerate us, we race past such moments, or they race past us unnoticed. And in our zeal to teach our children the ways of adult life, we run the risk of overlooking all they have to teach us—about being present, seeing things in new and fresh ways, curiosity and discovery, playfulness, and the joy of being-here, in this world, in time, in this body, which is here to “help us” if we allow it. Such a stance toward our children would save us and them from a host of ills. It would open doors, and costs us nothing more than a moment spent outside our agendas, a moment offered to our child in loving receptivity, a moment of empathy, and the willingness to be charmed.

07 May, 2014

The Perfect Parent Myth

The Perfect Parent Myth

Long after we have outgrown our belief in Santa Claus, wishing upon a star, and unicorns, the myth of the perfect parent persists. This is the parent that no one has, the parent that no parent can be, the parent who does not make mistakes of a hurtful sort. Well into adult life, we may resent our parents or be resented by our children for some failing or imagined failing, and we would like to suggest here that it would be a good thing for this to stop. We have seen in more counseling sessions than we can remember how much animosity and resentment are fostered by the assumption, always unexamined, that one’s parents should have been “better” than they were. It is a belief that leaves one stranded on sullied shores of contradiction and bitterness, for no one can be better than he or she is at any given time, all things considered. We are not talking here about those adults who perhaps had no business becoming parents because of some conspicuous pathology, people whose souls are so tormented that they are reactive, abusive, even cruel to their children. Rather, we mean those parents whose sins are in no way remarkable, but whose actions the child found hurtful and perhaps suffered in silence, as children often do. Childhood antagonism toward a parent can run deep, distorting the child’s perception of the parent well into adult life. Under the constrictive force of unaddressed and unresolved resentments, simple disagreement can be interpreted by the adult child as disrespect. If this continues unchecked, it can lead to a severing of the lines of communication, estrangement, the loss of access to grandchildren—in short, to suffering and heartache.

There is no suggestion here—again, and to be clear on an important point—that anyone is under any obligation to “forgive and forget” real abuse. Closeness is not always possible. To hold one’s parents up to a standard of perfection, however, acting out old resentments rather than dealing with them responsibly, perhaps with professional help and support, is itself a kind of abuse. And if we are to be punished for being imperfect, no one of us will escape the lash.

One hopes that, as we grow older, we gain perspective, learn to pick our battles, become more generous and better at letting go of things. For many adults, the time has come and gone to put down the standard of perfection against which they continue to deem their parents unacceptable, and see if they can find it in their hearts to give something of the understanding that they themselves would want.

Parents are people, after all, and there is no way to parent perfectly. It is inevitable that we will cause our children pain, no doubt unwittingly, and they will do the same with theirs. In a healthy family, there is room for occasional lapses and misunderstandings. So much is gained by where we place our attention. The same parent who is cast as a villain and shunned by his or her adult child stands forth as a loving and giving human being the moment that the wounded child is willing to put down the weapons and take responsibility.

There is a story from the East of a middle-aged man who had come to feel that his elderly father had lived long enough. He build a wooden box and told his father to get in. When the father asked why, the son explained that he intended to seal the old man in the box, take the box to a cliff, and throw it off. The father did as he was told, and the son put the box in a wheelbarrow and took it up the mountain road to a high embankment. Just as he was about to pitch the box off the ledge, he heard a meek knock from inside. “Yes?” he asked. “What is it, father?” Pressing his ear to the lid, he heard his father say: “I understand that you mean to be rid of me, and I was thinking that you should just toss me off the mountain, but keep the box. You’re going to need it when it’s your turn.”

Good parents who are rejected, cut off, or just treated unkindly by their adult children are not perfect, nor have we met one who would claim to be. As a rule, however, we can say this about them: They are somewhat less flawed in spirit than the children who condemn them.

Another year is ending. It is a good day to put something right.

31 December, 2013

Kindergarten Wisdom

Reprinted with permission of PhilosophyCenter

Kindergarten Wisdom

Back in the early 70s, I was at university and looking for a way to pay the bills. Fate opened the door to a teacher’s aide position, and I found myself working in a kindergarten to a wonderful woman, Julia Harper. My duties included things such as helping Mrs. Harper in the classroom, keeping an eye on our kids in the cafeteria during the half hour lunch break, and making sure that the kids got picked up after school. I had just begun a formal study in philosophy at the University of Florida, and the timing couldn’t have been better, since proverbial pearls of philosophical wisdom routinely fell from the mouths of the babes in my charge. One day, a little African American boy named Jamie tugged on my jeans. Looking down, I saw two, beautiful, brown eyes gazing up at me, and I was so charmed that all I could think of to say was, “Yes?” whereupon Jamie asked, “Are you God?” I told him I wasn’t, and thought I would have a little fun, so I fired back a question, asking him when the universe was created. Not missing a heat, he said, “1968.” I guess that was right, at least as far as his universe was concerned. On another occasion, a roundish girl named Teresa climbed to the top of one of berms bordering the playground, then rolled all the way to the bottom of the hill, landing right beside where I was standing. I thought I’d have some fun, so I asked her, “Teresa, as you were rolling down that hill, were you filled with existential dread and the sense that you might fall off into the void?” Teresa replied matter-of-factly, “No, I had my eyes closed.” There was another occasion, this time in the cafeteria. I was standing at a table where six kids were eating lunch and together. One of them was Jamie, the other, Hans, who was white. At one point, Hans noticed me standing by the table and pointing to Jamie, said to me, “We’re brothers.” I asked him, “Really?” He nodded. I thought I would push the issue a bit. “Are you really, really brothers.” Hans replied in the affirmative. “No, Hans,” I said, “I mean, do you have the same mother and father.” Hans regarded me with a look that could only be described as tolerant, and said, “Everyone has the same mother and the same father.” He had stopped me in my tracks. “They do?” I asked. “Yes,” said Hans, “Mother Nature—and George Washington.” One day after that, when the kids were waiting in the pickup circle after school, Hans came over to me and out the blue asked, “Do you know what doesn’t matter?” I was already entertained, and asked, “No, what doesn’t matter.” As though expressing infallible logic, Hans answered, “When a bee stings you on the shoe, that doesn’t matter.” Over forty years later, I’m still laughing at that.

I was a young man then. In less than a year, I would become a father. Philosophy was setting my inner life on fire, and the kids, spontaneous and immediate and undistracted by thinking provided me with a grounding in my heart, and I still feel extraordinarily privileged to have had that job for the year I did, and grateful to Mrs. Harper, wherever she is. I think that those of us whose hearts have been closed by too many years of suffering or struggle; who still believe that happiness lies just ahead in the next relationship or the next promotion or the time when we can pay off our debts; who feel, as the Fisher King Myth puts it so beautifully, “sick with experience,” should spend some time in a kindergarten as soon as possible. After that, most of the things we fret about, things to which we assign life-or-death importance, turn out to be a bee sting on the shoe.

13 October, 2013

Tenderness and Time

Tenderness and Time

It is hard to imagine a parental quality more important in bringing up young children than tenderness. The word implies not only a light touch, but a sweet one, and this is particularly fitting when interacting with those still in their “tender years,” since they are defenseless against parental will and authority. As parents of little ones, it is essential that we remember that they depend on us to be as open, gentle, and willing as they are.

Tenderness means more than engaging our young children with a light and sweet touch. It also mans taking time. Indeed, it is all but impossible to be tender when we’re in a hurry. To meet another with tenderness means to take a little time for the encounter—time to be-with, time to pay excellent attention, time to acknowledge, time to listen, time to empathize, time to respond. Taking time, sadly, is becoming a lost art. In the digital age, where multitasking is the order of the day, and it seems that the faster we go, the faster we need to go, taking time, even for the sake of our children,, may elude us. This is a fact of modern life. The conscious parent will take it to heart as a reminder that it is more important these days than ever to “unplug,” and when we are with our children, ,to make sure that we are nowhere else. Taking time means slowing down, giving undivided attention, and being willing to be present as long as our presence is needed. The importance of this cannot be overstated, for our children need our tender presence as much as they need anything else that we provide for them.

Taking the time to be tender follows naturally when our children are our first priority. As parents, we may believe that our children come first, that nothing is more important than their well-being, but in practice, it turns out that this is not a belief at all, but only a thought, an idea rather than a practice. While it is rare to find a parent who actually places greater importance even on other important areas of living, such as work, than on his or her children, it is all too common to find parents who forget, in the heat of a deadline or other demands, to “walk the talk.” Forgetting to take the time to be tender is no small thing. It inflicts wounds in homes around the world every day—wounds that may take far longer to heal than the moment of thoughtlessness it took to inflict them, and all because we forgot how much our children matter to us.

Much of the Child Project’s conscious parenting curriculum consists of reminding parents of things they already know, and would know they know if they took the time to consider them. To be tender, empathetic, respectful, to be present rather than distracted, to listen, to move with rather than against, to be truthful—ultimately, these are things that we all recognize as “the way,” not only when it comes to being a parent, but also a civilized human being. They are essential features of all that is best in us, of our “better angels,” and they constantly call us to live up to high standards, to remember what we know, to take the time required to be fully human, with others and with ourselves. These days, we are all too much in a hurry, infatuated with a technology that prizes speed above all else, often at great cost. And yet, “we shall not pass this way again.” Every day, every moment is a gift, and especially every moment with our children—not something to be squandered. What happens to the quality of our time with our sons and daughters if we slow down, give them our full, unhurried attention, and allow our native tenderness to come forward?

25 September, 2013

School Bullies

School Bullies

On 08 September, 2012, a piece appeared in the New York Times by Bill Lichtenstein entitled, “A Terrifying Way to Discipline Children.” The article described a growing practice in public schools of disciplinary tactics that use restraint or “seclusion rooms” in which children are locked in isolation, sometimes for periods long enough to provoke severe anxiety in the child, in some cases with longlasting psychological trauma. From Bill’s report:

Among the recent instances that have attracted attention: Children in Middletown, Conn., told their parents that there was a “scream room” in their school where they could hear other children who had been locked away; last December, Sandra Baker of Harrodsburg, Ky., found her fourth-grade son, Christopher, who had misbehaved, stuffed inside a duffel bag, its drawstrings pulled tight, and left outside his classroom. He was “thrown in the hall like trash,” she told me.

One may dismiss such horror stories as the rare exception to a rule of basic human respect for children, but one would be wrong. There are many instances of “discipline” by teachers and other public school officers that, while falling far short of the sort of wanton cruelty of the cases that Bill’s article cites, still would be unacceptable to anyone with a heart or a conscience.

I know of one child who, after telling the teacher that he had to use the bathroom, was made to sit in a chair and wait because “the hall pass was out.” At one point, the child’s biological needs overtook the teacher’s mindless enforcement of a rule. In another instance, a teacher told his class on the first day of school, “I’ll treat you the way you treat me. If you respect me, I’ll respect you. If you don’t respect me, I will make you cry.” So much for teaching by example. This so-called teacher should be fired. Verbal abuse of this sort is tantamount to bullying, a hot issue in public schools these days, though no one imagines that the bully will turn out to be the teacher.

What is the message here? First, parents need to stay involved and informed. Ask your child how the school day went, and if anything “interesting” happened. Meet his or her teachers before the school year begins. Ask questions and pay attention to your instincts. Notice if there is any change in behavior, especially if your child comes home from school sullen or troubled. Some children are reluctant to speak out against any adult. Most importantly, in cases where something is wrong, don’t make the distressingly common mistake of assuming that your child just needs to “apply himself more” or anything else that places the responsibility for an incident involving teacher bullying on some imaginary failing of the child. Parents who discover that a teacher has fallen short of the sort of the standards of basic kindness and respect for the children placed in his or her charge should act swiftly to require accountability and appropriate consequences, up to and including legal prosecution. Second, where the option is feasible, look into private or home schooling as an alternative, especially if your child is repeatedly having bad experiences in public school, where the standards for hiring teachers sadly are low and limited primarily to certification credentials, and where the lowest common denominator can remain hidden in the sheer numbers. Beyond this, parents can organize and bring pressure to bear on their state and Federal representatives to pass legislation that safeguards the well-being of children of every age in the public school system, beginning with far stricter standards in the hiring of teachers, and severe consequences for the failure on the part of teachers to live up to those standards. Children in school are bullied by inept, troubled, and heavyhanded teachers every day. The only advocates they have are parents willing to step forward, get involved, speak up, and where necessary, take decisive action. The bully most likely to get away with causing daily harm to your child in body and spirit, may be the one handing out the homework.

16 February, 2013